The gaming industry as a whole is in a strange state. Expanding in all directions we're becoming more diverse, niche, hardcore, casual, gameplay focused, and more non-gameplay focused. Our diversity and rapid growth has created challenges for us in terms of establishing a base level of general knowledge about ourselves and our medium. The discourse surrounding games like Journey and the language gamers use to talk about it concerns me. There's so much to say about games like Journey, and so little of it is being said. Fortunately, there are those who work to raise the level of intellectual analysis of games. As you might expect, I am a part of and support such efforts. Even with the best of intentions, our words can easily do more harm than good. And I've found that too many do more hard than good in the most subtle ways.
A game analysis should understand and respect gameplay for what it is including its effect on an interactive experience. There's no need to trash games to try to make a point on how games measure up to movies or books or any other artistic medium. Some of the industry's smartest, most well spoken supporters seem to waste time measuring games against other mostly narrative based mediums rather finding the way to measure games on their own. Either this or they create weak distinctions between types of gaming experiences they deem are "art" in an attempt to separate what is intellectually stimulating or emotionally meaningful. Though they may never admit it, I think that these writers and thinkers are looking for some kind of excuse that will allow the world to overlook gameplay to get to the "good stuff" in games. The way some grasp at stories in games, at graphics and sound, at virtual worlds, or at high concepts tells me they don't understand the power and design of gameplay at its core.
The following is my response to Ian Bogost's article A Portrait of the Artist as a Game Studio. The article does a great job of framing Journey via a brief history of thatgamecompany. It's when the article moves into the specifics of Journey that I take the most issue with Bogost's analysis.
image by jacksglassjaw
Like Goldilocks's porridge, Journey finally reconciles these two poles: neither too anxious nor too distracting. The game finally admits that the application of flow in games is best left to those that allow mastery at the highest levels of skill and challenge--games like basketball and Street Fighterand chess and go and Starcraft.
If Bogost is trying to say that Jouney's skill ceiling is comparable to games like basketball, Street Fighter, Chess, or StarCraft, then he is flat out wrong. As I described in my review there is not very much gameplay in journey, and the little that there is very straightforward stressing little skill. Whether you like it or not, the gameplay of Journey is not deep; there are no interesting choices. Journey does not find a balance for the "anxiousness "(difficulty/challenge) of its gameplay. Rather, it avoids the difficult design challenge by downplaying gameplay almost entirely.
Journey forgoes abstract, dynamically adjusted gameplay in favor of simple exploration, which allows the player to enjoy the haunting desert civilization the game erects from invented, abstract myth.
In other words, Journey forgoes actual gameplay and player controlled difficulty and replaces it with pretty visuals. Journey trades gameplay and overcoming challenges with walking around and observing the world. Being a ruined world, there's not much to see at work, not much to do, and therefore not much to enjoy besides looking around.
Journey finally learns this lesson. Set in a mysterious, mythical desert civilization, the game abandons the cloying framing of Flower's levels... Journey explains nothing and apologizes for nothing. Like Star Wars or Spirited Away, Journey makes the correct assumption that a bewitching, lived-in world is enough.
I can't stand this kind of intellectual reaching. Bogost argues that an interesting world is enough. Enough for what? Movies? There's a big difference between movies and video games. Spirited Away is one of my favorite movies. If I had the time, I'd have an entire blog the size of Critical-Gaming dedicated to other mediums (see my Mixed-Media blog for examples). The truth is, a crazy world is not even enough for Spirited Away because it's a film about the transformation of a girl in a critical point of her adolescent life. In other words, Spirited Away has a story to put the imaginative world she's falls into in an enjoyable context to sustain the movie. And to convey this story, there's dialog, careful pacing, action, combat, and more. Simply having a world and, in Journey's case, mostly moving through its ruined state is not enough to sustain its movie-like length.
So much goes unanswered in Journey, from the very first screen. The creatures are humanoid but not human, or not identifiably so. They have eyes and dark skin, or else eyes but no faces. The desert dunes are littered with monuments--are they pathmarkers? Tombstones? Relics? Advertisements? Sandfalls douse chasms lined with temples dressed in patterns reminiscent of Islamic geometric art. Fabric banners flap in the breeze awaiting the player's touch.
To support his poor argument, Bogost reaches into the "unanswers" of Journey. I argue that every work of art has this same level of mystery and "unanswers" from Super Mario Bros. on the NES (where do the Goomba live? Why are they drones? What are they made up? How does Bowser command them so well?) to games with complex stories like 999 or Radiant Historia. Even when answers are given, more questions arise. The fact that I can form questions about Journey's world is nothing special.
In Journey, thatgamecompany finally discovers that facility was never the design problem they were looking for. Its games are about the feeling of being somewhere, not about the feeling of solving something.
I'm glad Bogost comes out and says what I've been concerned about. As I've hinted at in the fourth part of my series A Defense of Gameplay, there's a certain desire to escape the pressures of life and to be a part of fictional, virtual worlds in many cultures and especially in the gaming subculture. This desire is generally referred to as escapism. Unfortunately, "being somewhere," virtual worlds, openness, and many high concepts are anti-gaming because they work against what games are and the nature of gameplay. So when Bogost says "not the feeling of solving something" he acknowledges that he does not truly value gameplay. Though we put these products under the wide umbrella of "games," products that focus on "being somewhere" instead of doing something is partly the reason why talking about games is so difficult and the industry is so confused. Like what you want, but being somewhere is not a game. Virtual worlds are not games. Games are unique experiences that convey meaning in a unique way. Simple interactivity does not achieve the same effect.
Indeed, given the usual subjects of videogames, players would be forgiven to mistake Journey's title for an adventure. The hero's journey is a common theme in videogames, but that formula requires a call to adventure, an ordeal, a reward, and a return. Journey offers none of these features, but something far more modest instead.
Reaching again, Bogost tries to make a case for Journey by differentiating it from other more traditional video games and narrative structures. Bogost claims that Journey is not an adventure like the hero's Journey. But from Bogost's own description, Journey seems to qualify. The large mountain that looms and beckons in the distance (with a literal beacon) is a "call to adventure." The "reward" is acquiring knowledge of your past and who you are as a red cloaked figure in a ruined world. And there is some sense of return to help others or a going-full-circle quality to the experience as well (example here). To claim that Journey offers "none of these features" is wrong. Journey may not exactly fit the typical hero's journey model, but it's pretty close.
...it seems impossible not to read the game's story allegorically instead of mythically: an individual progresses from weakness, or birth, or ignorance, or an origin of any kind, through discovery and challenge and danger and confusion, through to completion. It could be a coming of age, or a metaphor for life, or an allegory of love or friendship or work or overcoming sickness or slouging off madness. It could mean anything at all.
Sure. If we abstract enough, any story can mean almost anything, right? Again, Bogost is reaching here. As I discussed in my series Metaphor Meaning Matriculation there are a lot of connections and meanings we can draw from games. We have to keep our considerations in check by deriving meaning from the complexities of a work. As soon as we play the "allegorically' game, we can describe Super Mario Brothers as a journey complete with individual progress from weakness (you start off as Small Mario), as birth (you are squeeze out of tubes), and through discovery (new levels), challenge (legendary gameplay), and danger (death is always a few hits away), to completion (rescuing the princess). Once we abstract our analysis to the "metaphors for life" level, we've open the door to more than what can be explicitly derived from the work itself. This is a poor way to make a case for Journey.
Thatgamecompany should be both praised and faulted for taking such a morally, culturally, and religiously ambiguous position; surely every sect and creed will be able to read their favorite meaning onto the game. On the one hand, this move underscores thatgamecompany's sophistication: in a medium where interpretation is scorned as indulgent and pretentious, Journey gives no ground: the player must bring something to the table.
Continuing with his train of thought, Bogost continues to make claims that are further and further from what Journey is and how it conveys meaning. Journey isn't the first game that can be engaged on a level where players must "bring something to the table." The more minimalist or abstract a game, the wider the range of interpretation there is because the work lacks the specific complexities to derive specific details.
In my corner of the gaming industry, interpretation is not scorned as indulgent or pretentious. Though there are some voices in this fledgling gaming industry of ours who are excessively harsh against any kind of intellectual or meaningful analysis of video games, it rash to color the entire industry this way. After all, the simple game of "what if" that we play when things are unclear, unanswered, or ambiguous inherently involves player interpretation. We play this "what if" game of interpretation constantly with games. We do is so quickly and naturally as part of how we embrace and enjoy games that to paint this ostensibly intellectual version of interpretation as something unique is a position that falls flat with me.
These encounters with the other are both touching and disturbing. For one part, there is no mistaking a companion for an artificial intelligence; it moves too erratically, or speeds ahead to steal the next objective too definitively, or falls behind too listlessly. Even given the minimal actions of Journey, somehow these ghost players appear rounder than most of the scripted, voice-acted characters in contemporary videogames.
No one? How about my friend that I wrote about in my review of Journey. She didn't realize that the companions were actual players. She just thought it was a helper NPC designed to guide her along as one might find in Donkey Kong Country Returns or Super Mario 3D Land. It's nice to think that there's just so much "humanness" to humans that computers can't pass for them. But this is wrong. We're fooled more easily than you might think. Tune into this excellent episode of Radiolab called Talking to Machines for examples. Especially considering that the expressive tools in Journey (the mechanics) are so limited and simple, I can easily see how AI could be created to make an NPC very human like.
One of the problems I have with the high concept of Journey is that some part of me feels that you have to be in on the secret to enjoy enjoy the experience. You have to know you're playing with other humans to empathize with them and read into their every movement. So when Bogost says that players he knows are humans appear to him to be more human or "round" than most scripted, voice-acted characters in modern games, that's not saying much.
Journey Concept Art
When they speak about their games, Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago often express a hope that they might explore or arouse positive emotions in their players, emotions they do not feel from other sorts of games. Isn't this sense of delight and vitality precisely what they are after? Yes, to be sure.
No, to be correct. I experience all kinds of emotions from all kinds of gameplay and non-gameplay experiences. Each experience evokes different emotions many of which are very positive. But categorically, there was nothing in Journey that I haven't experienced with other games. I appreciate the particular combination of positive emotions Journey evoked. But I don't think Journey is special in this regard. My problem with Journey is that the emotions and experiences weren't strong enough, or clear enough.
Chen and Santiago sell themselves short with this this trite incantation about emotions. For their journey has not been one of creating outcomes, but of culturing a style, an aesthetic that defines the experience without need for their aphorisms. Instead: the sand and the ruins. The wind and the fabric. The silence of a cryptographic mythology. The vertigo of breeze, the swish of dunes.
Instead of making a great game with great gameplay, Chen and Santiago put an extreme amount of quality effort into all the non-gaming aspects and hoped for the best. And while the non-gaming aspects are some of the best, the lacking game design drags the whole experience down.
My struggle is I want to explain that much of what Journey is and how it works isn't special to video games. Yet at the same time I want to acknowledge that these experiences and emotions are what make games special. I want to explain how other games generate more positive emotions more clearly than Journey by using gameplay design, not downplaying it. I want to prove that gameplay alone is enough, and you only have to be honest with yourself to realize what makes gameplay special. I'm afraid that most of the positive press given to Journey is because the game is sold on its high concept, which is why so many people seem to have picked up on it. I'm concerned that people overlook how its lacking gameplay flattens the experience and there's nothing the non-gameplay elements do to mask this. I think that not directly addressing the actions players do in a game where constant action is required is a bogus way of analyzing video games.